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No tolerance for love and mercy in Bangladesh

WHILE Taj al-Din al-Hilali is now an international star, having attracted worldwide headlines for his recent outpouring of Western hatred, another Muslim man has barely registered on the media's radar screen. This man is facing the death penalty charged with blasphemy, sedition and treason. He was in court on Monday. His crime? He has been advocating peace between Muslims and the West. You won't have heard of this man. But it's time you did. From a small country half a world away, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is fighting Islamic extremism the only way he can: with words and ideas.

The West could learn something from this man. Slow on the uptake, we have finally worked out that the war on terrorism is, in the long run, a battle of ideas. When terrorists fly planes into skyscrapers, blow up a Bali nightclub, a Spanish train, the London Underground or an embassy in Indonesia, the worldwide media understandably gives maximum coverage to the death and destruction. For Islamist terrorists, it is another win in the propaganda war for Osama bin Laden, al-Qa'ida and every radical racing to join the jihad cause.

The West has been slow to realise that the only real way to fight terrorists who preach death and devastation based on a perverted Islam is by presenting an enlightened alternative to those thinking about joining the jihadists.

In some ways, it is the Cold War all over again.

For almost three years, Choudhury, a Bangladeshi journalist, has been at the front line of this battle of ideas. As editor of English-language newspaper The Weekly Blitz, he saw the rise of fundamental Islamism in Bangladesh, a country smaller than Victoria but bursting with 150 million people, 90 per cent of them Muslims. And he did what any good journalist would do. He reported it. This is his story.

From his home in Dhaka he told The Australian he watched, with apprehension, the massive expansion of what he calls kindergarten madrassas. "I discovered they were teaching almost the same thing that was being taught in the other madrassas, spreading the message of religious hatred and jihad." He is talking about children as young as five to up to 18 from both poor and affluent families being indoctrinated with Islamist revolution and the implementation of sharia law.

When mainstream newspapers refused to carry his investigative reports, he set up The Weekly Blitz. From May 2003, his newspaper, handed out in local markets and published online to an international audience, carried reports on the rise of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh and the propaganda campaign waged against Jews. Choudhury pressed for inter-faith dialogue between Jews and Muslims. Soon enough he started receiving threats from local radicals on a daily basis.

But Choudhury carried on, corresponding with people across the world to break through the propaganda. One person he contacted was Richard Benkin, a college professor in the US. Benkin would prove pivotal in Choudhury's fight.

In late November 2003, Choudhury was arrested at Zia international airport en route to Tel-Aviv when he tried to attend a conference on the media and peace. He remained in jail for 17 months, until Benkin convinced US congressman Mark Kirk to take up Choudhury's cause. Given the US donates $64 million in aid to Bangladesh, Benkin and Kirk hoped for the best.

But the inventory of abuse meted out to Choudhury and his family in what the US State Department has called a "traditionally moderate and tolerant country" is a long one: following his arrest he was beaten, his home and office were raided, his brother was beaten, his family threatened and his reputation trashed with leaks to the press. Worst of all, Choudhury told me: "They even tried to attack my children, so they stopped going to school." Police refused to act, telling Choudhury's brother, Sohail, that's what comes to those with an "alliance to Jews".

Choudhury's story needs to be understood against the political machinations in Bangladesh, a country that has a surplus of one thing: people, most of them dirt poor. While Bangladesh awaits elections in January next year and an ostensibly neutral caretaker government is in power, the country has been ruled by the Bangladesh National Party, in a fragile coalition with two fundamentalist Islamic parties. After US lobbying, the BNP Government agreed to drop the charges against Choudhury, but the Bangladeshi ambassador told Kirk it was "afraid of how the radicals would react".

This is how the radicals reacted. Two months after his release from prison on bail, a radical sheik phoned Choudhury, threatening his life and telling him his office would be bombed. Choudhury told the police but they did nothing. A few days later, in early July, Choudhury's office was bombed. No arrests were made. Two months later, when Choudhury's case came to court, the prosecution admitted there was no evidence. But the judge, who is associated with a radical Islamist party, decided the trial for sedition would proceed. A few weeks later, police protection provided to Choudhury and his family was removed. A few days later, his office was attacked by hooligans, two of whom were prominent members of the cultural wing of the BNP Government. Police were called but did nothing.

Benkin says the Bangladeshi Government is "steeped in a culture of mendacity". Choudhury's treatment reveals that the BNP is no longer in control of their relationship with the Islamists. But that is only the half of it. Benkin predicts a swing in favour of the Islamists in the January elections. While that may not concern us back home in the West, it should.

Benkin suggests we open an atlas and track the movement of

al-Qa'ida forces. Kicked out of Afghanistan, they crossed the border to Pakistan. When Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf started harassing them, they moved into Kashmir and the Chinese-Indian frontier. According to Indian intelligence, al-Qa'ida then set up camp in Nepal earlier this year. Why? Because they could. Follow that line and you find the third largest Muslim country in the world: Bangladesh. "I have no doubt they want to move people into here ... This is the tremendous story that the Western media just isn't covering," Benkin told The Australian. Now trace the line a little farther and you'll see Southeast Asia.

Choudhury's trial has been delayed until January next year, creating a window to increase pressure on the Bangladeshi Government. Tomorrow, Kirk will introduce a congressional resolution demanding the charges against the journalist be dropped.

This is why we ought to be taking notice of Choudhury. It's not just a question of saving one man's life. He is part of a threat that is facing all of us. And he is on the right side in a very long battle of ideas.

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